Today the phrase “riding shotgun” is a well-known part of popular culture. Not only does it state your claim to the seat next to the driver, but it comes with a complicated set of rules and responsibilities. However, if we go back a couple of centuries, to the times when the term originated, it takes on a very different meaning.
During the 19th century being a stagecoach driver was a very dangerous profession. These were the times of the Wild West, as the Americans were exploring and expanding into new frontiers. Regardless of the cargo you were transporting – money, supplies, mail or simply people – the risk of an attack was always present. The wilderness was full of all kinds of bandits, outlaws and cowboys and often the trade routes passed right through the lands of hostile Native Americans. It wasn’t long until people realized that alone they simply didn’t stand a chance and started teaming up. This way they could take turns at driving and while one kept his eyes on the road, the other could keep a lookout. He was armed, usually with a shotgun, so that he could take aim at distant targets and was aptly called the shotgun messenger.
The term itself became prominent in the 1920s. Hollywood began making films and shows about the Old West and the phrase started to appear as a reference to the old guard position. Although at that time the stagecoaches were a thing of the past, Prohibition lead to the rise of bootleggers and again the same lookout was required.